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Inside the outbreak: Harnessing high tech

Scientists and doctors experiment with very modern ways to stymie a virus

A robot sprays hydrogen peroxide during a demonstration in a train carriage at a news conference in Hong Kong on March 11. Associated Press/Photo by Kin Cheung

Inside the outbreak: Harnessing high tech

In some Chinese hospitals, robots clean, remove contaminated items, and deliver food and medicine to patients to keep humans from spreading the new coronavirus. The robots can work for up to eight hours after charging for 20 minutes and return to the charging station when their power runs low. Not only are they more sanitary, but they also save time and conserve the protective gear workers must don when they see patients, Luo Xiaodan, deputy director of Guangdong Provincial People’s Hospital, told China Daily.

No other pandemic fight has had as much assistance from robots, drones, and artificial intelligence as the new coronavirus outbreak. But the extensive use of technology in public health also poses new risks to privacy that could last long after COVID-19 dies out.

Some tech companies are donating their products to help keep the public safe. Dimer UVC Innovations is offering free use of its GermFalcon machine to airlines at select U.S. airports during the outbreak. The robot uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.99 percent of bacteria, viruses, and superbugs on airplanes. Zoom Video Communications said it will make its conferencing program available for free to K-12 schools in Japan, Italy, and the United States, Tech Crunch reported.

Governments and healthcare providers are also investing in new technology as they search for creative ways to fight the pandemic. A Swiss startup company called Calyps supplies French hospitals with artificial intelligence that analyzes weather forecasts, hospital data, public events, and seasonal flu patterns to predict patient flow up to seven days in advance, France 24 reported.

At Beijing’s Qinghe Railway Station, infrared systems powered by artificial intelligence can check 200 temperatures a minute while people wait for trains without disrupting the flow of traffic, according to MIT Technology Review. Other AI programs can read thousands of CT scans in 20 seconds with 96 percent accuracy, helping doctors diagnose the pneumonia that often accompanies COVID-19.

Drone technology can help deliver medical supplies. Japan’s Terra Drone transports medical samples and quarantine material between control centers and hospitals. Drones can also patrol public spaces and track quarantine violations.

Other tech companies offer solutions to make social distancing and widespread closures easier to navigate. Baidu in China offers an online doctor consultation service for people with limited access to medical resources or to those who want to see a doctor without risk of exposing themselves or others to illness. The service offers a network of more than 100,000 respiratory specialists and has already handled more than 15 million inquiries, MIT Technology Review reported.

Web giant Alibaba designed an app that Chinese authorities use to track people who visited infected areas or had contact with anyone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Based on that information, the application sends a QR code to the person’s phone. If the code is red or yellow, the person cannot access workplaces, residential buildings, or various transit stations. While some people like the idea—one person told France 24 it is “reassuring”—it does have downsides. One man received a red code that blocked him from work for two days even though he had not traveled to an infected area or come near anyone with COVID-19. In a country known for intrusive surveillance, many fear the increased invasion of privacy will desensitize people to a new level of control. “Over time we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability of people to push back,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian.

An ophthalmologist views a retina scan on a computer monitor.

An ophthalmologist views a retina scan on a computer monitor.

Hope for diabetic vision loss

Researchers estimate 14.6 million Americans will suffer from diabetic retinopathy by 2050. The diabetes complication causes abnormal blood vessel growth in the retinas and often leads to blindness.

Johns Hopkins University medical researchers discovered a way to convert human cells in the laboratory to a primitive state that may enable them to replace and repair damaged blood vessels in the retina. They published their study online in Nature Communications on March 5.

The scientists took a tissue cell from a person with type 1 diabetes and reprogrammed it to function like a stem cell, which can become nearly any tissue. The study did not require the use of embryonic stem cells, which require the killing of an embryo. Instead, the researchers bathed adult cells in a special cocktail of chemicals and nutrients to produce a stem cell nearly as primitive as embryonic stem cells six days after fertilization. The process erased the disease in the donor cells. Then, the researchers modified the stem cells so they could make new blood vessels and injected them into the eyes of mice with diabetic retinopathy. The cells migrated to the retina’s innermost tissue layer, took root, and survived for the entire four-week study. —J.B.

An ophthalmologist views a retina scan on a computer monitor.

An ophthalmologist views a retina scan on a computer monitor.

Healing venom?

Scientists may have found a better way to treat the more than 54 million Americans who suffer from arthritis. Doctors often use steroid medications to reverse joint inflammation and alleviate pain, but the treatments can cause serious side effects and increase the risk of infection. A study published March 4 in Science Translational Medicine suggests a protein found in scorpion venom might help target steroid medications to specific inflamed joints.

When they injected the scorpion protein into rats with arthritis, the scientists found the protein accumulated rapidly in joint cartilage. They linked the proteins with steroid drugs, and the drugs concentrated in the joints, avoiding systemic side effects.

“Steroids like to go everywhere in the body except where they’re needed most,” said researcher Jim Olson of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “This is a strategy to improve arthritis relief with minimal systemic side effects.” —J.B.

An ophthalmologist views a retina scan on a computer monitor.

An ophthalmologist views a retina scan on a computer monitor.

Iron rain

You may have heard of it raining cats and dogs, but what about iron?

Scientists using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile discovered an ultrahot giant planet where storms cause iron to rain down. The planet, located about 640 light-years away in the Pisces constellation, takes as long to rotate around its own axis as it does to revolve around its star, so one side of the planet always faces its sun while the other remains shrouded in darkness.

In the study, published March 11 in the journal Nature, astronomers discovered that temperatures on the lighted side reach a toasty 4,400 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to vaporize metals. Though the dark side is still very hot—dipping to about 2,700 degrees—the extreme temperature difference creates strong winds. They carry hot iron vapor to the cooler, dark side where it condenses into drops of liquid iron that rain on the surface. J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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